Tuesday, April 20, 2010

HUM 221: Assignments for Friday and Monday, and background on 'Smoke Signals'

We'll begin screening Sherman Alexie's movie "Smoke Signals" in class today. Try reading the screenplay along with the movie, at least some of the time, just to see how the actors bring the lines on the printed page to life on the screen. You also will need to have a good working knowledge of the screenplay, and Alexie's Scene Notes at the end, as you write your final exams. Finally, I have posted some material below to consider as you watch the movie.

Movie Response Questions

Three questions to ask yourself as you watch "Smoke Signals." (You'll no doubt recognize them as variations on the three questions that never go away in HUM 221.)

1. How do you, as a white or black American, react to what he says? If you have Native heritage in your family, does that affect the way you feel about him? If not, does that affect the way you feel? How many of his themes -- affect you as a moviegoer? In other words, does your cultural background affect the way you react to the movie?

2. How are Alexie's life experiences reflected in his writing. What's his message? Alexie's mother was Spokane Indian, and his father was Coeur d-Alene. How is his Native American background reflected in the movie?

3. Would you say Alexie is a Native American screenwriter or a writer who happens to be Native American? In your opinion, is he talking about American Indians or human nature? Or both?
If you suspect I'm leading up to the final exam with these questions, you're exactly right.

Here's a background link to the page on Coeur d'Alene culture and history on the Native-Languages website. It begins:

As a complement to our Coeur d'Alene language information, here is our collection of indexed links about the Coeur dAlene tribe and their society. Please note that Coeur dAlenes and other American Indians are living people with a present and a future as well as a past. Coeur d'Alene history is interesting and important, but the Coeur d'Alene Indians are still here today, too, and we try to feature modern writers as well as traditional folklore, contemporary art as well as museum pieces, and the life and struggles of today as well as the tragedies of yesterday.
Thomas Builds-A-Fire, the character who also narrates the movie, is a storyteller. So, of course, is Sherman Alexie.

Here are a couple of highlights from Alexie's interview with Cinaste magazine, about how he wrote "Smoke Signals" and adapted it for the movies. Alexie had a lot to say about how he wrote the story the movie is based on, how he quit drinking before he did the movie and how the characters changed because he quit, and some of the decisions he made about music, camera shots and the other details of making a movie.

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Look for the young women driving a car that only works in reverse. According to Alexie, it's an inside joke on the "rez." It's also kind of an ironic comment on the way Victor and Thomas set out on a mythic journey like in the Oddysy , if you want to get all English major-y about it.
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Mythic? Huh? He say what? Well, yeah. Alexie said in the interview he wrote the screenplay to tell "a very basic story, a road trip/buddy movie about a lost father, so I'm working with two very classical, mythic structures. You can find them in everything from The Bible to The Iliad and The Odyssey."
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So the Iliad and the Odyssey were road movies ... OK. Alexie also chose to do a road movie because it's one of the "cheapest kind[s] of independent film to make." So he adapted one of his stories to a screenplay about "these two odd buddies, sort of Mutt and Jeff on a road trip." Alexie says:
You can let the landscape tell a lot of story. And if it's a road/buddy movie, you're going to have a lot of music, and I always knew music was going to be a part of this. There are specific music cues in the screenplay about traditional music or rock and roll music, or a combination of the two. "John Wayne's Teeth," for example, is a combination of English lyrics and Western musical rhythms along with Indian vocables and Indian traditional drums. I also wanted to use Indian artists, so as not only to make a revolutionary movie for Indians, but also to use Indian artists on the soundtrack, which fits well with the road/buddy movie structure.

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